On recruiting rape survivors for campaign ads

Jonathan Martin reports that the Obama campaign was looking to recruit a rape survivor to appear in an ad.

Kiersten Steward, director of public policy at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, served as a conduit between the campaign and victims and women’s advocates.
“Obviously, this is a big ask and I haven’t seen a script but presumably it will be a brief ‘this is what happened to me, we need someone who will fight for women like me, these are the guys to do it,'” Steward wrote in a Sept. 15 e-mail. “Again, that’s just my assumption, given how these things usually go.”

So it raises the question: Is this exploitative? Or is it simply a compelling way to draw attention to a very serious issue?
My gut reaction was similar to Megan at Jezebel‘s:

While I’m all for bringing more attention to the issue of sexual assault, I am more than a little disturbed that the Obama camp would be asking a victim to share her story (and likely be attacked by conservatives) in order to score some political points. It’s one thing to go to them and offer to share her story, but it’s another thing for them to come to her and ask.

But that’s not the side I ultimately end up on. Political and issue-based campaigns frequently recruit people with first-hand experience to speak publicly and in ads. I wondered, would my reaction be so strong if the Obama campaign was seeking a laid-off autoworker to discuss his economic policies? Decidedly not.

All too often rape survivors are seen as objects of pity, rather than as people who have agency and a powerful voice. At a basic level, it’s good to have real women (not actresses playing survivors, Lifetime-movie-style) stand up and speak to this issue from experience. The major caveat, of course, is that there cannot be any coercion involved. And it doesn’t look like there was. Politico quoted one woman who was asked to appear:

Mikele Shelton-Knight declined to do so, but said in an interview that she was glad the Obama campaign was seeking to highlight the issue.
“The more discussion about this the better,” said Shelton-Knight, a full-time victims advocate in the Richmond area.

While I’m sure conservatives will peg the Obama campaign’s recruitment of rape survivors as crass, I agree with Shelton-Knight. I’m glad the candidates’ policies on sexual violence are an issue in this campaign. And it’s a good thing to hear directly from a person who was affected (or would have been affected) by the policies in question. Yes, even when that person is a survivor of sexual violence.

Join the Conversation

  • VT Idealist

    I don’t see a problem with it.It makes sense to put a human face to a problem that many refuse to believe exists (or exists through some fault of the victem).
    I agree that the campaign will need to take extra care to not pressure the survivor into telling her story and also to do their best to protect her from the inevitable backlash.

  • Crashhooligan

    Since these women are volunteering and can presumable back out at any time, I think it’s fine. Like VTIdealist said above me, it’s important that they aren’t pressured, but I think seeing victims tell their actual stories makes the horror of rape real to a lot of people who may not have heard first hand accounts, or been through it themselves.
    Plus, I could see how this could be cathartic for some women and let them use their bad experiences for good. If, of course, they are able to talk about it.

  • stronggirl18

    I think giving rape victims a voice is a great idea, however I think we should also point out that rape, along with all other violent crime, has been steadily declining since 1993.
    Lets not over represent this vile act, because that would be irresponsible and demonizing of the millions of good, decent men in this country.
    We surly want men to be liberated like we are, not have to walk on egg shells, and be able to have the freedom to go into town without an ever-present loom of suspicion by an overzealous society on a witch hunt, fueled by the over-reporting ratings crazed media, lobby groups, politicians and campaign ads.

  • nightingale

    I don’t see a problem, either. Rape victims are often dehumanized, blamed, or ignored, and the crime of rape is often treated as trivial. A lot of politicians don’t talk about it, so I’m glad to hear Obama is. And I’m even more glad to hear that his campaign is seeking victims to help promote the issue.
    I just hope they choose the victim carefully, to minimize baseless attacks.

  • eruvande

    Shorter stronggirl 18: Y’all hush, TEH MENZ are hurting!
    It’s not real easy to overrepresent an act that happens to, oh, most of us. It is the act itself that is overperformed.
    Would someone less angry like to provide her with numbers?

  • Blitzgal

    How is merely discussing the existence of rape and its impact in any way “over-representing” it??? As nightingale pointed out, rape victims are often silenced and this is not an issue that is commonly discussed politically.

  • eruvande

    Watch out, Blitzgal, you’ll upset the Nice Guys©.

  • alixana

    stronggirl18 sounds just like all those OTHER commenters who have come in here recently using a female name and admonishing us to not hurt the menz. Providing her with the numbers won’t do a thing. I strongly suspect an IP check will show they’re all originating from the same place.

  • bwayisluv

    stronggirl 18: The truth is every 2 minutes a woman in America is sexually assaulted. It would be very irresponsible to make women believe that everything’s fine when it’s not. I’m not saying that we should make women believe that a rapist lurks around every corner but it seems like you would rather protect the feelings of men than the safety of women. Having someone tell her story and then saying that rape has been declining is almost like negating her experience. We know that there are plenty of men who would never think to rape a woman that doesn’t make the issue any less real.
    i hope did a good job at explaining myself.

  • alixana

    I might also add, whichever way the crime rates are going, they’re almost useless unless you know the percentage of crimes being REPORTED. Crime rates only tell you who’s reporting their crimes, not who’s being victimized.
    And I concur with Ann’s assessment of Obama’s ad. Given Biden’s involvement in the VAWA, I think it’s especially important to make sure voters know which candidates are protecting women.

  • Steven

    For 2007 the FBI in the Uniform Crime Report indicate that a rape (def: carnal acknowledge of a woman against her will) is reported to police in the United States one every 5.8 minutes.
    And that is does not include reports the local reporting law enforcement agency screen out as “unfounded”

  • Rebecca

    Yeah, I think they’re definitely all the same person. Generic female name + number + rape apologism…

  • rileystclair

    i’m with crashhooligan.
    i’m ok with this as long as the survivors are treated with respect and not pressured to say anything they don’t want to.

  • Rebecca

    Yeah, I think they’re definitely all the same person. Generic female name + number + rape apologism…

  • Blitzgal

    Ah, stronggirl also showed up in the tribal fashion thread to bemoan racism against white men, so you guys have “her” pegged. Total troll.

  • Danyell

    At first glance, I could see how this has the potential to be exploitive.
    But I can also see how empowering it could be to have women sharing their real-life rape stories to a nation that would rather pretend that 99% of rape allegations are false. Maybe humanizing the problem with inspire empathy in people to actually help rape victims & prevent future attacks.
    BUT it will have to be handled with the utmost delicacy, ‘cuz it seems like a pretty easy campaign to go wrong.

  • h*yaforchoice

    I was a little put off by the idea at first too, but I also think that it’s really important given the fact that Sarah Palin made rape survivors pay for their own rape kits. If the Obama campaign can find women who are willing to get up and effectively say “Sarah Palin, how dare you?” then good for them for publicizing this. There are still women out there who think that Sarah Palin is a women’s candidate. Maybe this will help change their minds.

  • kurd55

    I wouldn’t have the guts to do it—I don’t think. But I hope someone does! Fuck, man. This is very important; the slimy neocons need to be beat into a blood pudding with their own causes. These are the REAL things to be frightened of—skunk-breath Palin and her religious nazi freak squads! We need to exterminate neocon scum memes NOW!

  • Taisa Marie

    I agree with most of the comments here. It is an important issue and it isn’t like anyone is forcing them to do this. If it does happen, yes, there will be some who come down hard on these women, but I hope there will be just as many who praise these women for standing up and not being afraid to show they and other women shouldn’t feel ashamed of something that wasn’t their fault. A political tool maybe, but I think anytime someone bucks the trend of keeping quiet is an opportunity to be seen as a role model.

  • mayfly

    I think that’s a great idea. I’d volunteer if I was American.

  • Hilary

    Using rape to progress your political campaign is NOT ok.
    I’d like to see everyone’s comments if John McCain was recruiting survivors- Would ya’ll have the same opinions?

  • MzBitca

    Well first of, I’m not happy with the term “using” that implies that the women who would choose to partake in the campaign had no agency. Instead they are asking for a rape survivor who is willing to tell her story. Using a rape victim would involve something like using a rape trial without the survivor’s permission as part of a campaign ad.
    Also, comparing Obama’s motivations to McCain’s are difficulty considering Obama is Pro-choice and McCain’s VP pick is in support of legally forcing a rape victim to carry her rapists baby. So yeah, it would be different because one candidate cares about the woman and her issues and the other doesn’t.

  • eighdrien

    to Hilary: NO, I wouldn’t be okay with it.
    What would McCain’s ad say? Would it be a rape victim telling the story of her rape and then saying she can’t wait for McCain/Palin’s policies of NO abortion in cases of rape? Or that she’d love to have paid for her own rape kit?
    As a victim of rape, if the McCain campaign tried to spin this issue to benefit themselves, I’d feel like I’d just been slapped in the face. Way to trivialize the issue. I agree with MzBitca, who said what I mean in a less angry way.

  • AJoy

    I am against using rape victims to further political agenda.
    But if they decide to do it, I think they should recruit Men/boys who have been raped in the ad. To include only women is being sexist.
    They should have one of the hundreds of boys who are raped by Women teachers in the ad.

  • LeilaK

    While I don’t personally think Obama will be doing much to help rape survivors if elected, I strongly agree with Ann that it is time for rape survivors to be seen as real women, not pitiful waifs. I am all for rape survivors (willingly) coming forward with their own stories. As a rape survivor myself, I found coming out publicly to be incredibly empowering.
    Also – AJoy, are you kidding? Sure, men are victims of rape as well as women, and I believe it is important to educate people about that. BUT the overwhelming majority are women, and much of the reason for that has to do with the very sexism you’re claiming here.
    Perhaps you have an argument about raising awareness of male victims of rape, but your comment completely discredits any legitimate discussion.

  • MM

    I think this is a fine idea. It can only be seen as using, as someone said above, if we assume that the women in the ads are only making the ads becuase they are being told to, as opposed to making an informed choice that participating in such an ad is in their best interest, either because it spotlights an issue that is important to them or helps a candidate they believe in. I trust those who have survived rape enough to think that they can make that decision for themselves.
    I also am intersted, from those who object to these ads, how they would like to see the issue addressed. Is the issue totally off-limits for Obama because you assume he is just using it to advance his own agenda? I think if he is going to talk about the issue, which I think he should, then giving control over how it is discussed to a survivor is the best way he can do it, from the perspective of being an ally. I obviously would be uncomftorable if he tried to control the content of what someone said, but I think that giving survivors a platform is a far better feminist move than trying to somehow speak for the needs of survivors himself. And, more broadly, if people do object to him highliting this issue at all, are we really ok with the only mentions of rape in this campagin being jokes from John McCain’s friends?

  • Brianna G

    AJoy, I agree that if they can they should include men who have been raped, because the country needs to learn that rape is not just a “women’s issue” and male rape victims need to be acknowledged. I doubt they could get anyone, though, because men in our society are discouraged from talking about rape even more than women.
    But using a boy who was raped by a teacher? That’s not the same as drug-facilitated rape, or abusive rape in a relationship, or obviously, violent rape. That’s a case where the law only intervenes because a) we have decided that the consent of the boy is not valid due to his age, and b) we have decided that the teacher-student relationship means that there is an element of authority. Ultimately, though, you have to remember that the boy COULD have said no and COULD have reported the teacher to prevent backlash on himself, so it’s not anywhere near the level of say, a man who was raped in prison, or a man who was raped by his emotionally abusive significant other, or a man who was raped while he was drunk, all of which happen and all of which are more comparable to rapes that happen to women. I think that statutory rape and teachers having sex with students should be illegal of course, but I’m not going to say that they are at the same level as a woman who is raped by her emotionally abusive husband or a college kid of either gender who wakes up and doesn’t remember why they are naked and bruised.

  • SarahMC

    I would like to see an ad like that. The campaign wouldn’t be “using” anyone; the survivor would be taking part in a campaign she believes in. The two camps support policies that’d affect rape victims in very different ways. It’s fine to put a human face on little-talked-about issues that affect a large percentage of the population.
    I think what AJoy means is that he’s opposed to a presidential candidate highlighting the fact that men commit rape but sees no problem calling attention to women who do.

  • Adrian

    I think it’s great. Some rape survivors don’t want to talk about what happened to them (or only want to talk about it in specialized contexts), but others want to speak out about it as much as possible. By calling for volunteers, the Obama campaign is not “using” some random survivors…they are making an alliance with survivors who have their own reasons for making public, political, statements.

  • a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi

    Well, do I think Obama will personally do much for rape survivors during a presidency? I’m not sure…
    Do I think he’s probably much more aware of the issues and cares more than McCain? Yep. So, I think I’d be okay with an ad like this.

  • Printmaker

    I think the campaign also has a valid track record on political action to protect women from violence with Joe Biden’s record. He’s even gone as far as to say he thinks the VAWA was one of the most important things he’s done in his political career. So, as a rape survivor myself, I think it’s a good thing. I can see this as representative of a previous and evidenced concern.
    If that record weren’t there it might seem slightly more questionable, but I really believe this is an issue Biden cares deeply about.

  • 1spacescientist

    It’s amazing to me how many trolls this site has started to attract since we are getting close to the election. How many of you folks are on the dole from the McCain campaign?
    Part of their campaign strategy is to try to damage morale on the progressive boards.

  • happyhappygirl

    Strangely, I found stronggirl18’s comment vaguely amusing. Ooh, let’s not hurt men. We have to protect menz at all costs. (smirk). Men are fragile like that.
    Obviously, this troll ignores such things as the countries that give women curfews for their own protection as a measure to prevent rape. How many men truly worry that they’ll ever be automatically suspect just for walking after dark?
    As for AJoy’s comments about using boys raped by women, especially the high profile teacher-student rapes, I have to wonder how many low profile female teacher-male student rapes there have been, especially versus how many not-covered or didn’t-reach-national-news male teacher-female student rapes there have been.
    Those are tangents. In all actuality, all the male rape victims I know, and I know several, have been raped by men. Men rape far more often than women do.
    Anyway, I would welcome an ad by someone who has been raped. It’s voluntary, and I believe that anyone who volunteered would understand the risk of smears & backlash, unless she’s been living in a bubble all these years.

  • Lydia Encyclopedia

    Like others have said, I support the idea of putting a human face on this very real problem that often gets swept under the rug. So long as it’s done with the dignity of the survivors’ in mind.

  • Annie M

    Hillary – good question.
    eighdrien – very revealing answer. Revealing of you – not of the topic – but still very informative of where peoples answers come from.
    MY question – were I to ask the Obama campaign – is TO WHAT OF YOUR POLICIES WILL THIS BE RELEVANT? Because to me there is a big difference in a personal event that relates to some proposed law or policy and a ‘sob story’ that is meant only to position a politician. Not saying which this planned as – as I have NO info on the subject – but it’s what I’d want to know before I put my face out there. (But as they are asking at random? I get suspicious. Most of the time where there is a policy issue you don’t need to ‘cold call’ for ‘victims’ as there is a very well (inside the issue) known someone who is *pushing* the policy/law in question.)
    Oh – and h*yaforchoice ? So far no one has been able to find a single ‘billing’ for a rape kit when Palin was Mayor. Might just mean they kept sloppy records, but it also might mean that this is one of those ‘Aastroturf’ issues. Smarter to hit people where they are guilty – it works better.

  • RacyT

    SarahMC, you are completely right about AJoy’s comment. It’s exactly the same as how MRAs say that women cause more domestic violence, even though the stats they use to “support” their position consider every act of a woman defending herself against a violent attack to be a separate incident of domestic violence.
    Rape victims shouldn’t be treated any differently than victims of any other crime.

  • dhsredhead

    I actually applaud the Obama camp for bringing attention to this issue. For anyone who is a rape victim/survivor who comes forward with their story; whether that is coming forward to the police or even telling their rapist that what they did was rape and was wrong come up against criticism. I would much prefer the conservatives bad mouthing me then the words my rapist referred to me as after I explained to him what he did was rape and I did not want him to contact me ever again. I’m sure there are other women who feel the same way.

  • ShifterCat

    Another flaw in AJoy’s logic: one of the Obama campaign’s major reasons for doing these ads is to deconstruct the idea that Palin is “a woman’s candidate”. Therefore it’d be kind of silly not to give female voices prominence.

  • AVies

    Honestly I don’t think this is a political stunt; if it is, it’s not a very inspired one because feminists and other people actually aware of these issues are probably also aware that Palin is a terrible choice for women’s rights.
    Of course, I guess this stuff could be what’s known as “solidifying the base” and I can accept it so long as they keep the support up after the election (my faith in this, incidentally, is what distinguishes my reaction from what would my reaction would be if I found out the McCain campaign were pulling a similar stunt–I don’t have any faith in him or his campaign following through with the issue, and dear GOD I’m not sure if Palin understands it at all)

  • kid_lightning

    Annie M.: The government did not bill the rape victims, so you’re right. What really happened was that the hospitals billed the victims for the rape kits that was used, so if you were going to look for bills you would have to look there. Except that you don’t need to look for anything, because it’s an acknowledged fact that Wasilla did charge victims for their rape kits. It was the city government’s policy to not pick up the bill, when everyone else in the state was. The Alaskan government had to pass a bill over it. Then the police chief complained about the bill.
    Just google it. The truth of it is a non-issue.

  • bittergradstudent

    This is a politician giving a shit about this issue. This is the first time that I can actually think of a single politician speaking out about it at all. I am baffled that anyone would think that this is anything but a bad idea, provided that no one is forced to say something that they don’t want to say.
    What’s more exploitative, having someone tell their own story about what happened to them, or to continue to pretend that rape just never happens, as we have done for generation after generation.

  • Brianna G

    Oh, ShifterCat, I didn’t realize they were doing it as a way to discredit Palin as a women’s candidate. In that case I can understand sticking to just female rape survivors. I’d still prefer they included, say, one man, if they could get one, but I can understand not doing so if that’s their goal.
    But again, it really would have to be a rape that was comparable to the rapes women experience, not a case where the law states that the boy’s consent wasn’t valid due to age or relationship.

  • redchokri

    My initial reaction was anger towards the Obama campaign. But then when I thought about it more, I think that my anger in part comes from seeing rape survivors as victims that need to be protected and taken care of. My anger informed me how I’ve internalized the five million images (commercials, tv shows) of the rape survivor as this poor, helpless, fragile woman whose identity we try to keep hidden. These images minimize the strength and resiliency that I’ve seen in survivors. What about community outreach/education programs like the Clothesline Project: http://www.clotheslineproject.org/
    and the many speakers bureau where survivors come forth to tell their stories to educate others about violence against women? What if this idea by the Obama campaign was thought of by survivors, who wanted to tell their stories to educate others?

  • Lauren Bernstein

    I think that it would be exploitative to use a rape survivor for political gain if the Obama/Biden ticket actually did not have positive records on protecting survivors and a woman’s right to choose. The Obama/Biden campaign is facing a ridiculous farce from the right, the idea that Sarah Palin represents most women, that she is a Hillary Clinton stand-in, that she is somehow a progressive move for women.
    To counter this, I think that it’s smart that Obama/Biden play the feminist card. They both have much more of a right to do so than Sarah Palin who makes survivors pay for their rape kits (something that was going on in my state, Missouri, until August 2007).
    As a survivor of rape, I think that there are few times when rape survivors are treated in a way that is empowering. Letting a survivor say that the McCain/Palin ticket does not speak for her is something that is powerful. One in six women in this country have experienced rape or sexual assault, and they deserve a voice in this campaign. As we all know, just because someone is a woman doesn’t mean she is a feminist. Just because someone is a man, doesn’t mean that he can’t have an incredibly feminist track record and work in the interest of women’s rights.

  • Elena

    I think its a great idea to offer the opportunity for any/everyone to tell their story and offer their political opinion. And besides, its the rapist who should be ashamed, not the survivor.
    BriannaG – you’re killing me. So there is a victimization scale? Bullshit. Rape is a weapon of power, not of beauty, age, gender, or sex. And to say that someone’s experience “wasn’t as bad” sickens me.
    You know what they used to say…disarm rapists

  • a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi

    I don’t like the phrase “victimization scale.” Yet, I have worked with survivors, been friends with survivors, and know a man very well who was sexually abused as a child, and I also do not feel comfortable putting statutory rape in the same category.
    Now, the fact that some statutory rapes could be considered “sexual assault” rape b/c coercion or fear mechanisms were used is one thing, but in true statutory rape where the younger party honestly wanted to and meant to give consent, I have to place it in another category.
    In many countries (like Canada) the age of consent is much lower, like 13 or 14. The fact that ours is 17 or 18 in most states is somewhat arbitrary, I feel.
    Now, there is not a “victimization scale” in the sense that people who are victims of x crime are going to be less traumatized than people who are victims of y crime. The fact is, the instances of every crime are different, and each person will be affected differently by a given crime. But, I feel comfortable guessing that /on average/ post-pubescent teenagers who wanted to have sex with an adult are less traumatized than victims of violent or forceful rape.
    But, I don’t think it has to be a competition between statutory rape and sexual assault rape, I would just prefer to keep them in separate categories. Biden’s law, after all though, was dealing with /violent/ crimes against women.

  • ShifterCat

    Side note, Ninapendamaishi: Canada’s age of consent is 16, with a few exceptions for closeness in age.

  • a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi

    oh you’re right, as of less than a year:

  • AVies

    Why are we assuming that the boy-molestation-by-teachers are all “merely” statutory rapes? They are as coercive as any other form of child molestation, and should be prosecuted as such.
    Simple teacher-student “relations” are a whole other kettle of fish, but I don’t think AJoy was talking about those.

  • Jxxxxy

    I love that the Obama campaign is looking for someone to tell her/his story – I dream of a day when any victim of a crime can speak without shame about what happened to them. Maybe it’s twisted, but one of my proudest moments was speaking in a courtroom full of people about having been raped, and feeling no shame and no guilt.